Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we talk to folks involved with Brooklyn real estate, development, architecture and the like. Introducing Paul Basile, the president of The Gowanus Alliance. The Gowanus Alliance is a nonprofit “dedicated to the enhancement and development of the residential, retail, commercial and industrial life of the Gowanus neighborhood.”
Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in, and how did you end up there?
Paul Basile: My parents settled in Park Slope when they immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1956. Park Slope was a working class community made up of Irish, German and the Italian newcomers. Many were longshoremen and factory workers toiling in the industrial factories of Gowanus. My Father, Salvatore, began to buy land throughout the Gowanus area using whatever money he saved doing construction work for the companies that called the area home at the time; companies like Kentile, Goya foods, Sucrest Sugar, and countless others. After I was born, at Long Island College Hospital on Atlantic Ave, my father felt it best to relocate his young family of four kids to Bay Ridge. However, most of his time was spent rebuilding the warehouses left behind by closing factories.
As a child, quality time with Dad meant learning how to lay brick or float concrete to the absolute perfect finish. We spent every spare minute cleaning vacant lots, fixing leaking roofs, and removing graffiti from gates and walls. If you know your Gowanus history, you know this was a full-time job. As an adult, I remained in Bay Ridge, but if you ask me where I live I would have to answer Gowanus, because I believe you technically live where you make your living.
BS: How did the Gowanus Alliance began? What is your role as President?
PB: Living and working in the community for so many years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know the residents, businesses and organizations that have filtered through the area. Experiencing many of the issues that affect people in our area, I feel I had the ability to unite the property owners and business owners so we could work on the issues that affect us today. Other organizations in the area, I felt, were too focused on what the Gowanus area could be or should be. I felt that we could do a better job fixing the issues for today; addressing why factories are closing doors, losing jobs; why our basements are flooding every time it rains; and why the city have money for every other park in the city except ours.
As president, it is my goal to form an alliance between the diverse occupants, so issues can be voiced with a unified vision. So often we see so-called gentrification without regard for existing land uses. The history of the Gowanus area has been one of working-class residents usually working in a warehouse or factory only blocks from were they reside. We believe this is what kept the neighborhood alive and worth preserving.
After the jump, Paul talks current projects, the Superfund designation and the Whole Foods site….
BS: What are the current projects the Gowanus alliance is tracking now?
PB: Our first undertaking is to get the Ennis Playground improved. Our Petition drive, which was held on August 14, 2011, was a great success with many signatures collected. We are hoping to replant nine trees at Ennis park, which were damaged over a year ago in a storm and never replaced. It is our hope that this will allow the NYC Parks Dept. to see the same value in the park that we see sparking interest in further improvements needed. We were told by the Parks Dept. that Ennis Park is a “LOW PRIORITY.” This should not be the case with a public facility for children.
Moving forward, an event for business and property owners is slated for November 10th at Draft Barn, 7pm. This 1st annual Gowanus Business Rountable is an effort to meet with local businesses in order to gather information on what issues affect local businesses today. Combining resources to improve the environment in which we conduct those businesses will be a big step in protecting and hopefully adding jobs to our community. Working closely with South West industrial Development Corporation, which has a wonderful track record in Sunset Park, we hope to tailor a plan for our area.
BS: Can you speak on the Alliance’s reaction to the recent Superfund designation?
PB: The politics of the proposed Gowanus Canal Cleanup should not be what excites people to action, although necessary government involvement and the role they play in communities should not be limited to providing safety. Through zoning and infrastructure they have a major role to play. The city is full of examples that show the government as an administration willing to steamroll entire communities. Government is also not necessarily the most efficient mechanism to get results. Placing regulations and mandates on businesses without dealing with infrastructure is, in effect, a hidden tax. Before the Superfund designation of the Gowanus, private development was well on its way to addressing the canal. Long time area residents have not changed the way they feel about living and working in the area, despite this designation, and the stigmatism associated with such a classification. Luckily, many other small business owners and homeowners have not let the designation keep them from opening a coffee shop, or restaurant or buying a home. Although developments like Toll Brothers may be dead, I am not sure that is a bad thing.
BS: How much of a game changer do you anticipate the Whole Foods development to be?
PB: Any development we feel is a positive thing when it identifies with the existing community. A homeowner restoring his or her home is just as important as a Whole Foods store bringing one of their food markets to the area. If Whole Foods is to be successful they need to understand that changing the way a community shops does not have to change the community. Part of what we as a group hope to do to initiate cooperation and understanding between the many land-users of the area is to begin a member to member discount program, somewhat like the Park Slope Food Co-op has been doing for years. Local residents would enjoy discounts from commercial members for goods and services, such as home improvements. A member would also dedicate some time volunteering at community events and clean up programs. It is our hope that this networking of co-operation will allow us to appreciate each other and the roles we play in building a safer and cleaner community.
BS: Finally your favorites: neighborhood, new development, and property in Brooklyn.
PB: Favorite neighborhood: If I said Gowanus would you be surprised?
Favorite new development: All the great new shops coming to Third Ave: Crop To Cup, Draft Barn, Peeled Snacks, Made In Heaven Cakes, Brooklyn Acupuncture Project, just to name a few.
Favorite property: My favorite property would have to be the corner landmark building at the corner of 3rd ave and 3rd street at the Whole Foods site. To me it represents perfectly the journey our Gowanus area has traveled to get where it is today. It currently stands alone, abused and neglected, but somehow shows a proud face as if to tell those passing by “I had a purpose.” Sometime soon a new large building will begin to rise around it. When completed, it will dwarf the little corner property , but only in size. I think the Whole Foods building and the corner building can come to symbolize the past, present and future of our area.